Brendan Eprile remembers the first time he saw Bernie Sanders on TV. Eprile was an 8-year-old growing up in Vermont, and he recalls “being amazed, because I understood what he was talking about, unlike all the other politicians.” Sanders was on his soapbox about Iraq — or maybe it was economic inequality? In any case, the famously blunt independent from Burlington had him riveted. Jonah Ragir has a similar recollection. When he was young, he says, his grandmother was watching Sanders on C-SPAN in her California living room. “I asked my grandma who he was, because he didn’t sound like the other guys who were speaking,” Ragir says. “He wasn’t ‘boring’ and he wasn’t ‘lying,’ were the words I used as a little kid.”
When Sanders announced in late April that he was running for president, Eprile, now a rising junior at Oberlin College, and Ragir, who attends Santa Monica College, were among the students who contacted his campaign to volunteer. (As of early June, Bernie 2016 told me it had heard from schools in almost every state.) As the most liberal candidate in the race, Sanders is, in many ways, the natural candidate of the campus left. He is also, however, a notoriously tetchy septuagenarian. How, I wondered, do the youngest generation of Bernie supporters relate to him? What exactly is driving their enthusiasm for this throwback product of the 1960s?
Certainly, his positions on the issues are part of the equation. Sanders, like most left-wing students, is antiwar, anti-money-in-politics — and anti-student-loan-debt, which he has proposed to curtail by making college free. “As a person in his 70s, he’s more in tune with our generation’s plight than I would argue Hillary Clinton is, and even Martin O’Malley at this point, and for sure the right wing,” says Adam Schwartz, a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. They like him on social issues as well — even though Sanders regards those as very secondary to his economic message. One student after another noted Sanders’s long-standing support of marriage equality as compared with Hillary Clinton’s slow “evolution.” Plus, his carbon-tax proposal has endeared him to the environmental crowd.
Sanders is also the kind of politician students tend to embrace because they see him as above politics. “He’s not playing the role of a politician, but of a person who wants to do good,” says Elizabeth Lee of Middlebury College. Where most pols “introduce legislation just to get the brownie points,” says Schwartz, Sanders “stands by it, and then he floats it repeatedly.” Nikolaus Hofer, a student at Princeton University, volunteered for Barack Obama in 2012 and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker in 2013 — but says he feels let down by both former idols. “The problem was, they’re politicians,” he explains. “They’re trading things for each other, balancing one thing against another.” Sanders, he says, is “not trying to swim through all this muck — he’s on a surfboard cruising right over it. I love the guy.”
Sanders on a surfboard? “I love the guy”? It wasn’t just Hofer: In talking to Sanders’s young supporters, it became clear that their enthusiasm for him extended well beyond his positions. The students who support him don’t just agree with him: They seem to think that he, personally, is kind of awesome.
The comparison between Sanders and Obama is, it turns out, instructive. Sanders is in most significant ways the opposite of the candidate young progressives fell for eight years ago. It’s true that Obama, like Sanders today, ran in 2008 as a kind of anti-politician, but he was nonetheless the consummate modern candidate: young, polished, social-media-ready. Sanders, meanwhile, is dour, pessimistic, and not the kind of guy one expects to share a laugh with — unless maybe it’s over the words “hope and change.” Wittingly or not, Sanders seems to be joining a small cadre of other no-bullshit old people — think Betty White or Chuck Grassley — whose perceived lack of guile resonates with digital natives. He’s “disarmingly straightforward,” says Frank Fritz, a student at George Washington University. “He’s not trying to win the game of who acts the most presidential or has the best media team. He’s good on social media because he’s honest about what he thinks.”
Sanders’s grooming habits are a key part of his charm. One student after another praised his white hair, which is infamous for lifting off his head in struck-by-lightning-level disarray. A guy that unconcerned with surfaces, the students argue, must be worthy of their trust. He “doesn’t care about his image,” says Hofer; he is “clearly not concerned about keeping up an appeal.” Sanders might be a 73-year-old man, “but at the end of the day, it seems he’s the most youthful candidate out there,” Hofer says. “That he’s unkempt is a draw for people,” says Ragir. “I know in my life — I’m 21 — I’ve seen Clinton, Bush, Obama. These are people who just look perfect. Everything about them is perfect. And Bernie is this real person.” He “comes off a little grungy,” says Lee. “It works for him.”
It even seems to help that Sanders is so unlikely to make it to the Oval Office. “You know, our generation is sort of the hipster generation, and the school I go to, people are very into not being mainstream,” says Eprile. “I think, honestly, a lot of people don’t think he’s going to win and like that in a weird way. “… He’s the edgy candidate.” The senator, concurs University of Texas of the Permian Basin graduate Timothy McDaniel, “is kind of rebellious.” Like a fixed-gear bike or a collection of vinyl, Sanders is trendily analog and impractical. Says Eprile: “I do hear a lot of people say, ‘Oh, he’s so cool.‘“Š”